Grand Central Terminal is celebrating its 100th anniversary…see photo essay here. The station building itself is only the most visible element of a massive, courageous, and very profitable infrastructure project carried out by the New York Central Railroad.
In the late 1800s, hundreds of trains a day entered and departed Manhattan on the NY Central lines. All were hauled by steam locomotives, and large amounts of land in the vicinity of the terminal were used for yard and support facilities. People living in the vicinity of the tracks probably did not view steam trains, with their smoke and cinders, as being especially romantic. Indeed, the smoke was so thick at some points as to represent a serious safety hazard, impeding visibility of signals.
William Wilgus, the NY Central’s chief engineer, realized that if steam were to be replaced by electricity for this segment of the railroad, then the trackage could be roofed over and the surface would become extremely-valuable real estate. The idea got a strong impetus when in November 1902 a train missed a smoke-obscured red signal and slammed into a stopped train, killing 15 people. The next month, Wilgus wrote to the railroad’s President, arguing for the immediate adoption of his plan. (It had previously been discussed and agreed to in principle, but not funded.) He described the project as “taking wealth from the air”…”a remarkable opportunity for the accomplishment of a public good with considerations of private gain in behalf of the corporation involved.“ The terminal and its support facilities “could be transformed from a nonproductive agency of transportation to a self-contained producer of revenue — a gold mine, so to speak.”
The project represented a huge capital expenditure…$35 million, an amount representing half the railroad’s revenue for a full year. The Board of Directors approved it in 1903…in that same year, a law was passed forbidding railroads “to operate trains by steam locomotives in Park avenue in the city of New York south of the Harlem river,” the law to take effect in June 1908. (The Wilgus plan actually provided for electrified operation over a broader territory than that required by the law.)
For delivery of motive power to the trains, it was decided to use a 600 volt DC system with a third rail invented by Wilgus and his friend Frank Sprague. The selection involved a very public dispute between the DC proponents represented by Edison and GE and the AC faction led by George Westinghouse.
The whole huge project had to be accomplished without interrupting train service to the existing terminal. In 1906–nearly two years ahead of the state-imposed ban on steam trains–the Central began operating electric equipment to the old terminal facility. The new Grand Central Station took longer to finish, and was opened to the public on February 2, 1913.
Wilgus was a high school graduate who studied drafting and engineering via a Cornell University correspondence course and private tutoring. I found the following description of him here:
He has a pleasing personality and made many friends years ago in Buffalo. They have remained loyal and watched his progress towards the top with gratification. I have never met a man who knew exactly what to do and say with so little consideration. He decides questions involving huge expenditures of dollars often in five minutes, and the remarkable thing about it is that he always seems to be right. I consider Mr. Wilgus one of the greatest construction men this country ever saw.